For thousands of years the Indians and lntuit in
Canada lived off the produce from the land, rivers, lakes and the sea.
Survival in this rugged, rich land was a measure of supreme skill in
hunting and fishing, knowledge of native plants and appropriate
techniques of food preservation.
To appreciate the food habits of the early North
American Indians and Inuit, it is important to recognize that there were
many distinct cultural groups in the different geographic regions of
Canada prior to the arrival of the Europeans.
Ten language families existed among the Indian
tribes. Within each language family were very distinct cultural groups,
while different language groups often shared a similar culture.
Anthropologists recognize at least five distinct
Indian cultures in Canada: the Woodland Indians; the Plains; the Indians
of the Plateau; the Pacific Coast Indians and the Indians of the
Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins.
In the east, the Woodland Indians which included the
Bcothuk. Micmac, Malccite, Montagnais and Naskapi, Ojihway, Algonkins
and Cree occupied the dense boreal forest from Newfoundland and Labrador
west to the shores of Lake Superior, from Hudson Bay south to the Ottawa
valley and the north shore of the St. Lawrence. They were expert
hunters, trappers and fishermen travelling the waterways in their
lightweight, skillfully crafted canoes by summer, ice fishing and
trapping on snowshoes throughout the long winter months. They hunted
moose, deer, bear and in Labrador and northern Quebec, caribou. They
also hunted geese and ducks and trapped muskrat, beaver and hare. The
mans lakes and rivers were teeming with fish and there was an abundant
supply of wild greens and berries. To survive the long cold winters,
they dried meal, fish and berries.
Fish and shellfish were an important part of the diet
of the Micmac and Malecite. Cod. lobster, oysters, eel. Atlantic salmon,
scallops and other fish, as well as seaweeds like dulse. Irish moss and
kelp, vegetables such as corn and potatoes, wild greens like fiddleheads
and blueberries and cranberries were all enjoyed by the maritime
Long before the arrival of the Europeans, American
Indians could take great pride in their agricultural achievements. Their
plant breeding techniques were among the most advanced in the world.
South of the Great Lakes. Indians cultivated at least 79 different
species of plants, including sunflowers, pear and plum trees, tomatoes,
potatoes and squash, cotton and flax and plants for medicinal and
narcotic use. More than 86 varieties of corn were cultivated. 21 of
which were grown in Canada.
The American Indians taught the Europeans to grow or
use more than 29 different vegetables which were unknown in Europe at
that time (e.g. tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, corn and beans).
The Indians of southeastern Ontario included nine
Iroquoian tribes including the Huron, the Neutral, and the Iroquois
(a confederacy of five tribes).
The Iroquoian tribes were superb farmers who grew
more than 15 species of corn, including 61 varieties of sweet corn, 25
varieties of popped corn, five varieties of flint corn, and six
varieties of bread or starchy corn. They also grew more than 60
varieties of beans including at least eight varieties of bread beans and
eight varieties of soup beans, as well as squashes, cucumber, melons and
sunflowers. Their success in agriculture was attributed to their
development of special seed varieties, their knowledge of fertilizing
methods and their planting techniques. For example, by planting corn and
pole beans together, the corn served as a support for the beans and the
beans added nitrogen to the soil. Squashes and dwarf beans were planted
between the rows to reduce the growth of weeds.
The Iroquoian diet was
mostly vegetarian. Corn, beans and squash, the seeds of squash and
sunflower were supplemented with fish, wild game, berries, wild greens,
nuts, roots and maple sugar. Corn was central to the Iroquoian diet,
mythology and religious celebrations. Different varieties of corn were
used as a basis for soup, bread, dumplings, pudding. It was also made
into travelling food, and hominy. Indian corn soup was made by boiling
corn in water and hardwood ashes until the corn began to swell. The
hulled corn was rinsed well, and added to water along with beans, meat
Sometimes sunflower meal
or crushed nuts were added for a different flavour. The combination was
a delicious complete protein meal. These foods eaten separately are
considered incomplete protein, that is, they are lacking in one or more
essential amino acids and will not support growth. By combining these
foods the proteins in each complement each other and therefore supply
the necessary amount of essential amino acids to support growth. Corn
bread was made with cornmeal. beans or dried berries and nuts and boiled
over an open fire or baked on flat stones over an open fire. The
cornbread was often served hot or cold with fat, gravy or maple syrup or
fried. It was also dried for later use.
The strawberry festival
had its origins in the Iroquoian celebration of the arrival of the
Strawberry Thanksgiving, an annual longhouse ceremony to thank the
Creator for his gifts. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries,
choke-cherries, and currants were plentiful and enjoyed fresh, sweetened
with maple syrup, dried or as a fruit drink. The Iroquois were quick to
adopt the European practice of cultivating orchards and by the mid-1700s
they had huge apple, peach and plum orchards.
The maple tree was highly
esteemed and considered a special gift from the Creator. Each spring the
chief would conduct a ceremony at the base of the largest maple tree to
give thanks to the Creator. The arrival of the maple sap was considered
the first sign of spring/3*
Many wild greens were
collected in spring for food and medicinal use. These included wild
asparagus, cattail, milkweed, sorrel, wild pea and dock, as well as
mushrooms, puffballs and occasionally root foods such as artichoke and
yellow pond lily roots.
The Plains Indians
included eight different tribes speaking three distinct languages. The
Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan. Gros Ventre and Plains Cree all belonged to
the Algonkian language family. The Blood, Blackfoot and Peigan occupied
territory throughout the central and southern part of Alberta to the
east of the Rocky Mountains. The Tsuutina and Chipweyan, who spoke an
Athapaskan language, lived to the north and west of the Blackfoot. The
Gros Ventre lived to the east and the Plains Cree occupied the northern
part of the prairies as far east as Manitoba.
The Assiniboine and Sioux spoke a similar language of
the Tsuutina family. The Assiniboine's territory extended across what is
now known as Saskatchewan and Manitoba, south of the Cree. The Sioux
(also known as the Dakota) were scattered across the American plains and
the Canadian west.
The Plains Indians of the central and southern part
of the prairies carried their tipis in search of the buffalo herds. The
buffalo became their major source of food, clothing and shelter. Some of
the meat was barbecued on a spit or boiled in a skin pouch with hot
stones. Most was cut into razor-thin strips and dried in the sun.
The famous pemmican - a food ideal for
travelling hunters or warriors was made by combining powdered dried meal
with melted buffalo fat and dried berries, making a highly nutritious
and lightweight food that would keep well. Most berries were gathered in
season, dried and later added to soups. Saskatoons were a favourite
berry in this area. Another famous food, that is still made today, is a
delicious chokecherry paste. Whole chokecherries were dried in the sun.
Water was added to the dried berries and they were then cooked in a
small amount of fat. Birds, wild greens and Labrador tea were also
collected to supplement the diet. Other game such as moose and deer were
more important in the northern plains or along the mountain ridges. Fish
was not used by the Blood Indians but in the northern plains dried or
smoked whitefish, pike and pickerel were very popular.
Popular foods among the Plains Cree of northern
Saskatchewan included smoked, dried fish and pemmican made of dried fish
and dried saskatoons or blueberries. Moose, deer and bear were the main
meats which were normally dried or smoked. Moose meat was often used to
make sausage and the moose nose (considered a delicacy) was singed over
an open fire, scraped, washed well and then boiled until tender. Dried
meat could be used for pemmican or as a base for soup. Bear fat taken
from bears hunted in the fall was rendered and used for cooking or as a
hair treatment. A delicious dish used dried moose-meat cakes, topped
with the fat from the spleen (which had the appearance of lace) and
cooked over an open fire. Moose, caribou, hare and waterfowl are still
in common use today. Soup made from suckerheads or whitefish was very
common. Sometimes fish eggs were added to bannock.
Many wild greens and roots, including pigweed,
dandelion and cattail roots, were picked and added to soups. In early
spring the sweet tasting poplar cambium was eagerly sought as a tonic
for the blood and a cure for worms. Rosehips, Labrador Tea and mint were
dried for teas.
To the Plains Cree. certain foods had a very
important religious significance. For example, dried chokecherry paste
and saskatoon berries were always served as part of the Sundance
ceremony and the Sweatlodge. For other feasts, such as Flower Day, a
ceremony held at the end of August to honour the spirits of the
ancestors, the elders would burn a little sweetgrass and serve food at
the graveside of their loved ones. The community would then participate
in a feast of soup made with dried meat and herbal tea.
The Plateau Indians
included six tribes in the interior of British Columbia - the Salish
(including the Lillooet. the Thompson, the Shuswap and the Okanagan).
The Kootenays spoke a distinctive language and occupied the southeastern
corner of British Columbia. Three Athapaskan-speaking tribes were
located in the northerly part of this area - the Chilcotin, the Carrier,
the Tahltan. In the extreme north lived the Tagish, a member of the
Tlingit language family.
The Plateau Indians
relied principally on salmon. The smoked, dried salmon was stored in
underground pits lined with birch bark. Their pemmican was made from
dried salmon mixed with salmon oil and saskatoon berries. Game.
waterfowl, roots, greens, a variety of berries (saskatoons, raspberries,
blueberries and salmonberries) and the inner bark of everercen and
poplar enriched the diet.
Pacific Coast Indians
The Pacific Coast Indians
included six tribes speaking five distinct languages - the Haida of the
Queen Charlotte Islands, the Tsimshian along the mainland coast opposite
the Haida, the Nootka on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Salish
on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island and at the mouth of the
Columbia river and the Bella Coola (the Nuxalk) and the Kwakiull along
the central coastline of the mainland.
Plentiful fish, wildlife
and plant life made it possible for the Pacific coast tribes to build
permanent settlements and develop a sophisticated society. They used a
variety of fishing techniques including netting, harpooning, and
trolling to bring in the salmon, herring, cod. flounder and halibut
catch. All parts of the fish were used - the head. eggs, organs and
backbone. Most of the salmon was smoked, dried and stored in cedar
boxes. To serve, water was added and the fish boiled or cooked over the
fire. The west coast tribes were (and still are) famous for their
barbecued salmon. The whole fish was stretched flat, soaked in seawater
for a short time, dried in the sun for about an hour and then woven onto
water-soaked cedar sticks. The sticks were positioned upright, leaning
into the fire and barbecued for 2 to 3 hours.
Towards the end of March
and the beginning of April, the Nuxalk of Bella Coola people watched for
the signs of the ooligan run - a type of salt water smelt. This fish was
highly valued for its oil - used to flavour fish and berries, and as a
preservative for berries. To make ooligan grease, the ooligans were
allowed to ferment in large stink boxes made of cedar for seven to ten
days. The fermented fish was then carefully simmered until the fat
separated out. The fat was poured off, strained and stored in a cool
The Nuxalk women gathered
a wide variety of shellfish including mussels, clams, crab, abalone, sea
cucumber, sea urchin, octopus. Seal, hunted only once a year by the
Nuxalk Indians, was preserved in salt.(4)
Wild greens were
carefully harvested by the women in early spring. The cow parsnip
(sometimes called wild rhubarb) was important to the coastal people. The
stems were peeled and the stalks eaten raw or steamed and eaten with
ooligan grease. Sheep sorrel, lamb's-quarters and shoots from
salmonberries, fireweed and thimbleberries were steamed or eaten fresh
as a salad.
ethnobotanists now estimate that the Indians of the northwest coast used
more than 25 different species of wild roots and had a lively trade in
camas bulbs. Some of the wild roots included roots from clover,
silverweed, camas, riceroot and fern. Camas roots were steamed in
underground pits, dried and then added to stews made from dried salmon,
berries and other roots. They were also served cold with oil from
ooligan, seal or whale. Roots could be stored fresh or dried for later
use. Many of the west coast tribes served clover and silverweed roots at
feasts. Seaweed (laver) was gathered in May and sun dried. It was used
on top of soups or stews, or served boiled with fish or shellfish.,4>
Cottonwood mushrooms were collected, dried and used as a flavouring in
The Nuxalk people
maintained their berry patches by carefully burning trees and
undergrowth along sections of the mountainside. There were many
varieties - raspberries, salmonberries, blueberries, huckleberries,
soapberries and elderberries - all in abundant supply. The berries were
sun dried or smoked. The berry cakes were wrapped in leaves and stored
in cedar boxes or in ooligan grease.
Each spring women went to the beaches or outlying
rocks at low tide to gather seaweed. The seaweed was used in a variety
of ways - as an ingredient in fish soup or clam chowder, simmered with
fish eggs or dried for later use. Dried seaweed was a favourite snack
The Indians of the
Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins
Twelve tribes lived in
this area all speaking languages belonging to the Athapaskan Dene
family. The Chipewyan Dene were the largest tribe, occupying the area
north of the Churchill River west to Great Slave Lake. The Beaver lived
in the Peace River valley to the south and west of the Chipewyan. To the
west of Great Slave Lake as far as the Mackenzie River were the Slaveys
Dene. The Dene of Yellow knife lived among the lakes from the east end
of Great Slave Lake to the eastern end of Great Bear Lake. To their
southwest were the Dogrib Dene. Moving further west and north were the
Hare Dene. The Yukon interior was principally occupied by the Kutchen
while in the southern Yukon lived the Dene groups of the Han, Tutchone,
the Kaska and the Mountain. On the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains
lived the Sekani Dene nation.
Scarcity of the food
supply required a constant search for migratory animals - the moose,
caribou, mountain sheep -each with their own particular territory. The
northern tribes were very dependent on the caribou herds and the wood
buffalo, while some such as the Hare, were more dependent on small game
and fish. Among the Chipewyan Dene, dried smoked moose, caribou and
buffalo and whitefish are still popular foods. Soup made of wild duck or
rabbit is still widely used.
Travel by birch-bark
canoe, dogsled and snowshoe enabled the hunters to cover great distances
in search of food. Very strict rituals were practiced in the slaughter
and butchering of game. Bears were held in great respect by the northern
tribes and among the western groups the lynx, wolf and wolverine were of
special ceremonial importance.
The Inuit occupied the
Arctic region of Canada from Alaska to Labrador. In the land of long,
dark, cold winter days and the short summer when the sun never sets,
only those with a remarkable facility for adapting to their environment
could hope to survive. The Inuit were a self sufficient people. In the
winter they hunted the marine mammals. In the summer they travelled
inland to fish, hunt caribou and birds and collect berries and wild
greens. Seal or caribou was often eaten raw, dried or frozen.
Although separated by
great distances, the Inuit shared a similar language with slight
regional variations in dialect. Their food habits varied somewhat from
one region to another depending on the food supply. For example, the
Mackenzie Inuit of the western Arctic had access to a plentiful meat
supply - the caribou, muskoxen. seal, whales, moose, beaver, and
The Copper Inuit who
lived to the east could hunt caribou and muskoxen in summer and seal in
winter. The Netsilik Inuit lived to the east in an icebound area where
they were known for their skill in hunting marine mammals. The Igloolik
occupied the area north of Baffin Island. They were particularly fond of
walrus and went inland during summer to hunt caribou and birds. Seal was
the staple of the South Baffin Island Inuit. Caribou and birds were
hunted in the summer. The Ungava and Labrador Inuit hunted whale, seal,
caribou, partridge, ducks, geese and smaller animals. They fished off
the Atlantic coast for salmon, cod, smelt, char and trout. Their berries
included bakeapples, blueberries and blackberries.
Use of Herbal Teas
Herbal teas made from the
leaves, bark, stems and fruit of shrubs were the traditional beverage of
most native people.l2-4-9' Herbal teas included Labrador tea and teas
made from salmonberry, strawberry, raspberry, and mint leaves, rosehip
and bergamot. Some teas were used by the native herbalist as
medicines.(2-3-4-7) Many of these herbal teas are still used today.
Most Indian tribes
preserved fish and game by drying and/or smoking such foods. They
carefully selected the proper woods and controlled the cooking time and
amount of fire to develop the best flavour. In the Arctic, where fuel
was scarce, fish and seal were eaten raw or frozen.
Berries, bulbs and roots
were air-dried, mixed with oil or fat, and sometimes dried meat or fish,
to form pemmican. The pemmican was stored away from the air and light in
cedar casks, root cellars, underground pits, birch bark containers or
Seeds and nuts were collected, dried and
stored for winter use.
Very sophisticated cooking techniques were developed,
the method varying according to the region and foods available. Most
foods were boiled or barbecued but in some west coast regions vegetables
were steamed in underground pits lined with rocks. The Montagnais
wrapped fish in clay and baked it in the sand.
Bernard Assiniwi, in his book Indian Recipes,
provides a wonderful collection of traditional and new recipes from
across Canada. Among the recipes submitted is one for the famous
"Indian Succotash'" a complementary protein meal made by boiling
corn and beans together
In some areas of Canada these skills and methods are
still known and practiced especially for festive occasions. The tempting
aroma of a steaming soup kettle with hearty chunks of salmon, delicately
flavoured with wild onions, mushrooms and camas root might still be
served on the West coast. And "Indian Ice Cream" a light dessert
made by whipping soapberries, is still prepared in west coast
The menu would vary from coast to coast, by season,
and with different foods cherished by different Indian and Inuit tribes.
Travelling in the Arctic,
you might have been treated to frozen raw seal with a texture and
flavour not unlike frozen sherbet. Drop in on a family in the northern
plains, and you might have been just in lime for a delicious buffalo
steak served with berry soup. Or if your travels took you to the
Atlantic coast, your meal might have included salt cod, smoked eel soup
or fish chowder.
As trading increased
between Indian and Inuit tribes, and Europeans arrived in Canada, new
foods were added - sugar, wheat Hour, pork, beef, potatoes, milk,
oatmeal and lard.
Although the traditional
food habits of the Indian and Inuit people of Canada varied according to
region and the foods available in each area, people were able to select
a nutritionally balanced diet. The native peoples shared certain common
elements - namely their reliance on meat and/or fish, a high protein
diet supplemented with berries and wild greens, fairly low in fat and.
with the possible exception of the Iroquois, a low carbohydrate diet.
Their adaptability and
ingenuity enabled them to develop methods of transportation, food
preservation and cooking to meet the challenge of a harsh environment.
Food was cooked simply but with great care.
Their intimate knowledge
of indigenous plants enabled them to make maximum use of plants as food
and medicine. Their great respect for plants and animals and belief in
living in harmony with nature and others led to the wise use of food,
the development of certain rituals concerning the use of food in
religious ceremonies and a commitment to share with others.